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David Shields: Not Dead Yet

"I've been weirdly giddy ever since finishing the book," David Shields admits. "Somehow I find the mortality data strangely liberating."

David Shields Somehow this isn't surprising.

"This may sound a little too easy — and perhaps it is — but I found that the only way out is to go deeper in."

In The Thing about Life Is that One Day You'll Be Dead, Shields takes readers from womb to casket, addictively blending family narrative, biological science, and wisdom from the likes of Schopenhauer and Ice-T. It all adds up to an audacious and, yes, lively collage that immediately won over several Powell's staff members.

Now, days before The Thing about Life arrives in bookstores, the University of Washington professor reflects on giggling girls, Bill Murray, and the force that through the green fuse drives the flower — in other words, what it means to be alive.

Dave: A stranger sitting near my table at lunch today saw your book in front of me and said, "That's an interesting title, that book you're reading. Is it good?"

She asked if it was "a seize the day kind of book." I don't think that's wrong exactly, but I explained that it's more about the path we follow from birth to death.

David Shields: It's funny, people's reaction to the title. Generally, people laugh at it; they find it grimly funny. It's almost like a Rorschach test. Some see it as a seize the day book, and I guess there's a glimmer of that. But, as you say, it's more about life in relation to death, the process.

I don't know if I can reduce the book to a bumper sticker, but when I think of that title, I think of a line by John Donne quoted in the book, where he says,

We are all conceived in close prison, and then all our life is but a going-out to the place of execution, of death. Nor was there any man seen to sleep in the cart between Newgate and Tyburn — between the prison and the place of execution, does any man sleep? But we sleep all the way; from the womb to the grave we are never thoroughly awake.

I think of the book as an attempt to make myself and the reader wake up. One day I'll be dead: I still find that overwhelming, and I think that most people do, too, particularly if they don't have access to any kind of religious uplift. The book was an attempt to make myself, and via myself the reader, really wrestle with that.

Dave: The cliché goes, "If you only had a week (or a month, or a year) to live, what would you do with that time?"

The Thing about Life keeps reminding readers that we only have so long to live; we can't put an expiration date on it, but our demise is no less real for that.

Shields: For me, that's the key. The book throws so much data at you. For example: We have only 850 million breaths. As you and I are talking, we're taking these breaths. Eight hundred fifty million sounds like a lot, but at this point I'm probably down to around 300 million.

The book began with some rough ideas about the body. I was turning fifty, and my daughter was this insanely vital teenager. My back was bothering me. And I still feel like the country is suffering a post-9/11 psychic meltdown. So I had these tentative ideas for a book about the body. Then was I visiting my dad in the Bay area, and I was overwhelmed with his vitality. He became the center of the book.

I did lots of research, gathering the data, and then I researched what smarter people than I have said about living and dying. I wanted to liberate myself from the death grip of a mortality obsession. This may sound a little too easy — and perhaps it is — but I found that the only way out is to go deeper in.

Somehow I find the mortality data strangely liberating.

A lot of people think that if they consume a lot of stuff, or they believe in religion, or believe in the immortality of art or kitsch or something else, those beliefs will be their refuge from death. I had to go into the forest of mortality, and I feel like now I'm sort of ready to live again. It's not as if I'm going to jump up and down — I have no answers that I didn't have before — but having gone through it I have a weird joy in my body. I know what life is, I see how connected life is to death.

There's one chapter in which I say that our birth is nothing but our death begun. You have got to accept that. Somehow, to me, that's the book. That may sound very grim, but I've been weirdly giddy ever since finishing the book. I'm not sure exactly why.

Dave: Is it true that, when you were a child, your father actually pulled over in the middle of road trips to do jumping jacks?

Shields: That's true. I take certain poetic liberties in the book, but that's definitely not one of them. He's just a bizarrely vital person.

We'd drive from the Bay area to the Grand Canyon or something, and every hour or two we'd stop — I'm not sure we'd pull over specifically so that my dad could do jumping jacks, but we'd stop to rest and he'd do two hundred jumping jacks next to the car. The rest of us would just moan.

He's exhausting, he's self-absorbed, he's selfish, he's had a whole series of issues with mental health, but for whatever reason he definitely has the life force within him.

Dave: Growing up, you were an athlete. At some point in any athlete's life, skills begin to erode or injuries interfere. Controlling your body becomes a constant battle, training and disciplining it. Maybe that's why top-notch athletes feel such a rush; champion athletes simply control their body better than everyone else.

Shields: I think you're on to something crucial. Why do we get such a kick out of watching great athletes perform? It's a bizarre obsession. It's not unique to this country, but it's way, way, way over the top here. Or, why does participating in sports give us such joy? I do think control is at the heart of it.

There's a line in the book where I say something like, "We're just a bare body housed in a mortal cage. We're just animals walking the earth for a very brief time." At the longest, you live on the earth for a hundred years. Not that many. Sports can give powerful illusions of immortality.

In graduate school, I was still a pretty good basketball player. My fondest memory of Iowa isn't writing deathless prose in the Writers Workshop; it's beating local kids in the gym, being this 25- or 28-year-old guy and taking 19-year-olds to school.

The unbelievable sense that you're never going to die, that you're one with yourself and one with the cosmos — it's so powerful. Perhaps as someone who grew up in a typical Jewish family in which the cerebral is hugely valued (the bookish, the intellectual, the scholarly, the exegetical), that sense is even more persuasive. You know the old joke: The thinnest book in the world is Great Jewish Athletes.

In the new book, I mention that my graduate student friends were floored by the fact that I was a really good basketball player. You don't always own your body, but for a while you do and it's heaven.

In a way, sports is at the center of this: control and power, and vanishing control and power.

Dave: For years now, Roger Clemens has been a feel-good story in baseball: man defies aging, sets new standard for longevity. These last few weeks, it's been fascinating to see how quickly fans have turned on him. Right or wrong, they feel betrayed by his alleged steroid use. But the fury seems to strike much deeper than simple competitive balance. It has to do, I think, with our own aging, even our sense of mortality.

Shields: Right. How dare you not allow us to mythologize you! It's a whole other topic that maybe belongs in another book like Body Politic or Black Planet. Barry Bonds gets demonized while Clemens used to be lionized. Mark McGuire used to be lionized. Sammy Sosa used to be lionized.

As you say, the narrative flips in a second, just like the narrative about Hillary Clinton flips in a second, or the narrative about Obama. Part of it is the media, which always needs drama and conflict. We're going to simplify people into cartoons, good, bad, up, down — that's a ridiculous notion about life. But we want to believe that Jamie Moyer at age forty-two is somehow arguing against the clock. Clemens, until now, too. How dare you take away our fantasy of resurrection and redemption!

We want athletes to be warriors, but then we hate it when they're bandits. Oh, my goodness. Michael Jordan gambles! We're shocked that he's not a saint. But what do you think athletes are? An athlete almost by definition is cruel. Athletes are killers; they're tough, mean guys.

Dave: You can dismiss an athlete simply by saying, "He doesn't have the killer instinct." That's the put-down.

Shields: Exactly. And it happens in the arts, too, but that gets more complicated because we have the notion of the sacred monster. We understand that art, in some ways, has to be monstrous; people will point out that Picasso and Theodore Dreiser were monsters in real life. Great art is complex, whereas sports give us the illusion that things are simple. There's a team that wins and a team that loses, et cetera.

That line by Leo Durocher is really profound, I think: Nice guys finish last. That's a powerful notion.

In the book, I quote a secretary at a cancer care center. She says, "It's the assholes who always get better." I think that's an amazing idea, that it's the selfish people with a survival instinct.

There's something of that in my father. It's a really scary idea that the life force is synonymous with a certain fury. My dad oddly embodies that.

Dave: You mentioned Body Politic. In that book you cite New Journalism as a big influence: Thomas Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion. Why, specifically? Was it the way those authors inserted themselves into nonfiction narratives?

Shields: Yes. And I also talk about Howard Cosell in the opening of Body Politic. I think of Howard Cosell, weirdly, as being related to those people, to Didion and Hunter Thompson; probably less so Tom Wolfe.

Those people are amazing at their best, but I'm not a journalist. It's really important for me to not think of myself as a journalist because both of my parents were journalists. I'm definitely not a reporter.

I have learned a lot from them. I've learned a lot from performance art, people like Spalding Gray. I've learned a lot from self-reflexive documentary film, people like Ross McElwee. I've learned a lot from autobiographical anthropology, people like Renata Adler and George Trow. Comedians like Dennis Leary and Chris Rock are important to me.

But in terms of New Journalism, I just love the way in which they take the story and rewire it through themselves. That's sort of what I do. I'm not interested in going to the Pentagon march and writing a 300-page book exactly about that.

I remember vividly growing up in the Bay area and Rolling Stone arriving every two weeks. Again, both of my parents being journalists, and loving those writers: Joe Eszterhas, Hunter Thompson... Was Gay Talese in Rolling Stone, too? There's some great, great work there.

Really great art. It's making that post-structuralist move whereby the perceiver, by his very presence, changes what's perceived. That interests me greatly. I'm not interested in objective data; I'm not interested in self-indulgent memoir. I'm interested in that cool mix of both of them, in which you're getting the world, the data, and at the same time a highly subjective take on it. It seems to me you're getting the best of both somehow.

Dave: In Enough about You, you wrote:

Narrative progression is an apparent contradiction of literary collage, which compels instead by thematic orchestration, internal investigation, and the rubbing together of the author-narrator's emotional trouble with cultural cataclysm of some sort. No wonder I'm such a fan of the form and of these books in particular: they're all madly in love with their own crises.

The Thing about Life doesn't completely lack narrative progression, but you replace traditional plot with stories about your father and your daughter, memories, quotes, biological fact...

Shields: I have a book coming out next year from Knopf; it's called Reality, Hunger: A Manifesto. There's a whole chapter on collage, where I argue over the top for the excitement of lyric essay and anti-linearity and the blurring of genres. That's absolutely at the heart of my aesthetic.

This book is obviously collagistic in various ways. It has the whole string of quotations from wise people from the beginning of time. It has a data stream. It has me and my wife and daughter. It has my dad. And it blends these together into a crazy mix that I hope works.

But it goes wherever it wants. It goes into data, and then it will pivot for a moment to my dad and then to me. I like how it keeps the reader on edge.

There are a few narratives. One is that we're going from birth to death, from the beginning of the book to the end. Also there's a little narrative in the sense that I begin the book a bit woebegone; I feel sort of death-haunted, and my dad doesn't seem to admit that he's ever going to die. There's a slight crossing action that occurs — I wouldn't want to push it because that would be kind of corny, but by the end of the book we kind of trade places.

I think at the end I say something like, "Life is simple, tragic, and beautiful." I'm digging life finally. And my dad is making a begrudging acknowledgment that he's probably not going to live forever.

Dave: But collage is pervasive.

Shields: To me what collage does is it frees you up to think. You have material that you're wrestling with. In this book, it's nothing less than life and death. Basically, it says, "Listen, I'll go anywhere I want — story, parable, data, quotation, comedy, anywhere — as long as I'm getting deeper into to the topic."

That seems to me the most exciting frame, rather than, "Okay, children, let's sit around the fire. I'm going to tell you a story." Or, "Okay, children, sit at your desk and I'm going to lecture you." I almost have trouble reading something that doesn't have at least some kind of pointillist drive to it.

This book could have been a disaster if it had just skated on the surface. Given how giant a topic it is, it has to try to get to something deep.

Dave: Why are you obsessed with Bill Murray?

Shields: Yes: Murray. I love Murray.

One good thing about writing about someone or something is that you're no longer obsessed with them after the writing. I watched every Murray movie. It was such a fun thing. I'd watch the movies with my wife and daughter. We'd get popcorn and pizza, and I'd say, "No, this is all just homework and research."

I just adore Murray, for so many of the reasons we've talked about. If you've read anything about him, he's clearly a very gloomy guy, clearly obsessed with death; with his father dying when he was very young; with a kind of lapsed Catholic sense that there is no meaning to the universe, and craving that meaning. His joy, his giddiness — going to Pebble Beach and acting like the court jester — is always underwritten by deep agony, by the existential abyss in which we all exist.

The reason I love him, as I say in that chapter of Enough about You, is that he shares my obsession but he figured out a way through to joy. He never pretends to be happy, or not death-obsessed, or religious, or feeling that human beings can totally understand each other, or that art saves anyone. But he somehow, at least on screen, has figured out a way to be gloomy and joyous at the same time. That's a point I try to get to in this new book.

Dave: The Thing about Life includes wisdom from Greek philosophers, contemporary filmmakers, rap musicians... Are there any quotes that you find yourself citing in conversation about the book?

Shields: I love almost every quote in the book. I think the Ice-T quote at the end is as good as anything. In his paragraph he pretty much nails the book.

Wisdom comes from a lot of surprising sources. There are passages at the end called The Exit Interviews where I'm quoting a gravedigger and Ice-T and Stephen Jay Gould.

I really love the passage from Dylan Thomas, where I say:

Dylan Thomas wrote (I love this line and my father abhors it): The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer.

It articulates the core of the book: that the very processes of life are the processes of death. If you can acknowledge that, you probably have a pretty good base.

I really love the John Donne passage I quoted earlier; it's beautiful, I think. And I love the line of Wittgenstein: "Our only certainty is to act with the body." Martha Graham says, "The body never lies."

What are some other good ones? Let me think. This line from Jean De La Bruyere: "There are but three events in a man's life: birth, life, and death. He is not conscious of being born; he dies in pain; and he forgets to live." I feel like that's a good map of the book in a strange way.

I love the Martin Amis quote, which sets the whole book up.

Who knows when it happens, but it happens. Suddenly you realize that you're switching from saying "Hi" to saying "Bye." And it's a full-time job: death. You really have to wrench your head around to look in the other direction, because death's so apparent now, and it wasn't apparent before. You were intellectually persuaded that you were going to die, but it wasn't a reality.

Either that passage resonates for you or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then I could see the book not working for you. If the passage does, then it really could.

The epigraph from Coetzee is crucial. It's almost a challenge to the reader: That, finally, is all it means to be alive: to be able to die. Kind of a bummer of a line, but the book is an attempt to respond to that.

Maybe one last line, from the Bhagavad Gita, where it says that the human body is a wound with nine openings. I love that.

Dave: Has your daughter done anything recently that's particularly vexing to you, a further example of her readiness to take over the world?

Shields: Just last night she had two friends over, and they stayed up until five o'clock in the morning watching movies, eating little cupcakes they made, and just sort of laughing riotously. They laughed more in six hours than I think I've laughed in twenty years. It's all I can do not to ask, "What's so funny?" They can't stop laughing. They're so freaking alive, it's a bit scary.

I called David Shields at his home in Seattle on January 21, 2008.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Enough about You: Notes Toward the... Used Trade Paper $5.95
  2. Remote: Reflections on Life in the... Used Trade Paper $5.95
  3. Body Politic: The Great American... Used Trade Paper $15.50
  4. Black Planet: Facing Race During an... Used Trade Paper $8.50

  5. The Gang That Wouldn't Write... Used Trade Paper $8.00

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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